Materials for the study of the Ethiopian version of the history of al-Makin

The Arabic Christian historians are largely unknown.  Starting in the 9th century, the main ones are Agapius, Eutychius, al-Makin, Bar Hebraeus, and one whom I always forget.

Al-Makin wrote in the 13th century, and contains a version of the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus, which appears in Shlomo Pines’ much-read but much-misunderstood paper on the subject.  But anyone wishing to consult the text of al-Makin, in Arabic, must find a manuscript; no printed edition exists.  I did attempt to do something about this, a few years ago, but in vain.

Al-Makin, like other Arabic texts, was translated into Ethiopian.  A correspondent writes to tell me about some sources for the Ethiopian version.

Firstly, an article on translation technique from Arabic to Ethiopic,  “Arabisch-äthiopische Übersetzungstechnik am Beispiel der Zena Ayhud (Yosippon) und des Tarika Walda-‘Amid” (i.e. “Arabic-Ethiopian translation techniques using the example of Zena Ayhud (Yosippon) and Tarika Walda-Amid”) by Manfred Kropp, with al-Makin as one of the examples, in the ZDMG, is now online in high resolution here.  In Ethiopian chronicles Al-Makin is known as Giyorgis Walda-Amid (George, son of Amid) while Tarika Walda-Amid (Chronicle of Walda-Amid) is the title given to his “Blessed Collection”.

Kropp has also published a book, Zekra Nagar – Die universalhistorische Einleitung nach Giyorgis Wala-Amid in der Chronikensammlung des Haylu aka (The preface to the Universal History of Giyorgis Walda-Amid in the Chronicle Collection of Haylu” – Haylu was an 18th c. Ethiopian prince).  There is a Google Books preview here.

Modern Ethiopians speak Amharic, not Classical Ethiopic or Ge’ez.  I learn that Prof. Sirgiw Gelaw from Addis Ababa University has prepared a translation of the Ge’ez version of Al-Makin into Amharic.  The manuscript is 560 pages long and is still waiting publication.

A manuscript copy of the Ethiopian version of the first part of Al-Makin – he divides his work into two parts, pre-Islam and post – is actually online at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, here.  The catalogue entry is here.

My thanks to Ezio for all this material!


Ethiopian biblical commentaries — the Amharic “Andemta commentary”

In Amharic, the main biblical commentary is known as the Andemta commentary.  This is divided into four sections, which cover the Old Testament, the New Testament, Patristic works, and Monastic canons and texts.[1]

The Andemta commentary is an explanation in Amharic of passages in the Ethiopian biblical, patristic and liturgical books, themselves written in Geez.  The commentary does discuss textual variants and emendations, showing that the authors are aware of scribal issues.  The Geez OT is based on the Septuagint, rather than the Hebrew text.[2]

The commentary is little known in the West.  Manuscripts are uncommon.  The late Roger Cowley (d. 1988) worked in Ethiopia for 15 years, and managed to amass copies of the entire collection, which he bequeathed to the British Library.  He encountered great difficulty even in identifying manuscripts.[3]  However the Andemta commentary has now at least been printed for a number of books of the bible; Psalms, the 5 books of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Ezekiel, the 4 gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, the Catholic letters, and Revelation.[4]

Cowley does refer to the commentary on Philoxenus (of Mabbug) in the Andemta commentary in his own book on Ethiopian Biblical Interpretation, but otherwise I have been unable to find anything on the subject of the patristic commentaries.

  1. [1]British Library Endangered Archives project 336, here. “This project aims to digitise the andemta (Ge’ez – Amharic commentary) manuscripts of biblical and patristic commentaries made according to the lay bet exegetical tradition. The formerly famous exegetical school of thought known as lay bet has survived only in the much endangered codices which are kept mostly in private and in rare monastic collections in Eastern Gojjam and Southern Gondar regions, Ethiopia. The material includes 70-75 codices which cover the Ge’ez – Amharic commentary of the four sections of Ethiopian Exegesis: Old Testament, New Testament, Patristic Works and Monastic Canons & Writings.”
  2. [2]K. Stoffregen-Pedersen, Traditional Ethiopian exegesis of the book of Psalms, 1995, p.5
  3. [3]K. Stoffregen-Pedersen, Traditional Ethiopian exegesis of the book of Psalms, 1995, p.2
  4. [4]K. Stoffregen-Pedersen, p.3.

More on the Ge`ez version of the Coptic-Arabic gospel catena

It has taken some time since I wrote this initial article, but I am finally in a position to say somewhat more.

The Gospel problems and solutions by Eusebius was used by the compiler of a now lost Greek catena commentary.  This catena was translated into Coptic (De Lagarde published it) and the Coptic into Arabic. 

The Arabic version then seems to have furnished material for a composition in Ethiopian, in Ge`ez, to be specific.

The Geez adaptation of the Coptic-Arabic gospel catena gives the name of the magi’s ancestor as Zaradas, and continues with the information tabulated below [15]: …

15. The text I have primarily used is B.L. Add. 16220, fol. 10b-11a; EMML 2088 fol. 9a-b has only minor differences.[1]

The source for this is the mess that is Roger Cowley’s Ethiopian Biblical Interpretation, where Cambridge University Press declined to do more than reproduce the typescript.  The book is full of great scholarship, but, as here, subjects are raised without any introduction, on the assumption that everyone will know about this Ge`ez text.  In this case Cowley is investigating the sources for a passage in the Amharic “Andemta commentary”, discussing the Magi, and doing so with great intelligence and learning, but, unfortunately, little concern for the reader.

“BL” is of course the British Library; “EMML” is the “Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library (see 7.2 under W. Macomber and Getatchew Haile)”, which doesn’t take us a  huge distance forward.  It is a reasonable inference from Cowley’s careless remarks that these are two manuscripts of this Geez text.

The British Library is a major research library, so of course its website is useless to the researcher and its catalogues must be found elsewhere.  What else do we expect, in return for our taxes?  I found this information on Add. 16220:

The Manuscripts which here follow in the order of numbers, from No. 16,185 to No. 16,258 inclusive, are in the Ethiopic language, and were presented by the Church Missionary Society. They are all fully described in the “Catalogus Codicum Manuscriptorum Orientalium, qui in Museo Britannico asservantur. Pars III.” Published in 1847. Folio.

In the 160 years following, it seems, nothing more has been done.  The British Library, lazily, has not even troubled to place these paper catalogues online as PDFs.  Thankfully Google Books has it.  But even then, the volume is not organised by shelfmark, nor is there an index.  Dear me, no.  Fortunately Google again rescued me, and I find the item on p.10-11, as “ms. XI.”

It is a catena on Matthew, on f.9-46, preceded by 8 leaves of paschal tables.  Named as being referenced ubique (everywhere) are: John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Severus of Antioch, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil the Great, Clement of Rome, Athanasius, Benjamin, Epiphanius, Simon Eremita, Litus, Ausonius, Justus. 

Sadly there is no mention of Eusebius.  But I do not trust catalogues on such things, of course.

Ms. XII is also a catena on Matthew, I notice.

I suppose it is futile to wish that this Ethiopic catena — just 37 leaves — was edited and translated?

  1. [1]R. Cowley, Ethiopian biblical interpretation, p.49.

Field research on manuscripts and monasteries in Ethiopia

Via the EthiopianLit list, I receive this intriguing announcement of a talk at Princeton University in March, which I would certainly go to, if I could.

Nobody has any idea what exists in Ethiopic.   There’s gold out there, you know?

Preserving the African Archive: Field Research on Early Manuscripts and Monasteries in Northern Ethiopia

Denis Nosnitsin, University of Hamburg
March 27, 2012 4:30 pm
127 East Pyne, Princeton University

Ethiopia has one Africa’s largest archives, with tens of thousands of written sources held in around 600 monasteries and 20,000 churches, some of which date to the early Middle Ages. Very little from these archives has received scholarly evaluation, with less than ten percent having been microfilmed or digitized and far fewer being researched or translated. A great part of this unique heritage is on the verge of extinction and urgent action needs to be taken to save it from complete disappearance.

In this talk, Dr. Nosnitsin will present information about his innovative project Ethio-Spare based at Hamburg University, funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant, and focused on digitizing the most important monastic libraries and archives in Ethiopia and creating searchable databases that will allow quantitative and qualitative research into Ethiopian literature. He will then present his own historical and philological research on two of the more important Ethiopian hagiographies. For more information, contact Wendy Laura Belcher

Dr. Denis Nosnitsin, a research fellow at Hamburg University, is an expert in African literatures, especially that in Ge`ez (Ethiopic), Amharic, and Tigrigna, as well as in the pre-modern history of the region. He is the principal investigator of the project Ethio-SPARE. His current research is on Ethiopian hagiography and historiography, monastic manuscript collections and Ethiopian Christian manuscript culture, and historical analysis of marginal notes and documents in Ethiopian manuscripts. His  degree in African (Ethiopian) philology is from St. Petersburg State University. He has published in Aethiopica, Orientalia Christiana Periodica, Scrinium, and Africana Bulletin. For more information, see 


Coptic-Arabic gospel catena also known in Ge`ez?

This evening I found the following snippet in Google Books, given as in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1989, p.380:

… Ethiopia’s access to foreign commentaries (including that of Iso’dad of Merv and the other Syrian scholars) is through the Geez version of Ibn at-Taiyib’s exegetica and the Geez adaptation of Coptic-Arabic Catena….

Now call me daft, but this sounds as if the Coptic gospel catena published by De Lagarde, which was translated into Arabic, was then onward translated into Ethiopic, or more precisely Ge`ez.  And that someone out there knows this.  It’s in a book review of some kind.

Unfortunately I have no access to the article in which this appears.  Poking around the website for the JRAS of 1989, p.380 belongs to Michael Loewe, of “East Asian civilizations: a dialogue in five stages. By Wm. Theodore de Bary. (The Edwin O. Reischauer Lectures, 1986.) pp. xi, 160. Cambridge, Mass, and London, Harvard University Press, 1988. £15.95.”  That doesn’t sound right, nor does the abstract look right.  Cambridge University Press greedily demand 20 GBP to access the article, the swine. 

Wish I could find the article.  Anyone got any ideas?

UPDATE: I think the Google Books snippet must be in error in some way, probably in the page number?  I’ve found the book itself reviewed above, and it has nothing relevant in it.

UPDATE: Found it!  I took the snippet and pasted it into the general Google search, and up it came as a JSTOR review in JRAS 1990, p.379f.  The article is a review of Roger W. Cowley, Ethiopian Biblical Interpretation, CUP, 1988.  Now that sounds like an interesting book.  Amazon list it at a fantastic price, unfortunately.